CFE applies for program to save South Park

The Mill River is one of only nine Class A Wild Trout Streams left in Connecticut out of over 300 streams. The Mill River is unique in that it is pure enough and cold enough to sustain wild trout despite being on the edge of a suburban area. — Archive photo

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

That line from Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi song sums up what Citizens for Easton doesn’t want to see happen to the town-owned South Park property.

Rather, the local group’s goal is “to preserve something the town already owns,” according to CFE President Verne Gay.

William Kupinse, former first selectman and CFE member, has said it many times at Board of Selectmen meetings, as have other members.

Now CFE has taken action to bring the goal to fruition by applying to the state’s Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust program.

“The application is representative of our interest and passion for this property,” Gay said. “The organization started with South Park. It’s inspired CFE for 40 or 50 years and been the rallying part of the organization for years.”

That said, he is circumspect about the group’s chances of winning the competitive grant due to the high price the town still owes for the land and the work First Selectman Adam Dunsby and the Board of Selectmen is doing to try to sell it to make good on the investment and help the taxpayers.

“It’s not a criticism of Adam or the Board of Selectmen,” he said. “It allows us to have a say on another alternative, rather than selling it wholesale. It’s a little effort to say, Here is another idea consistent with Citizens for Easton and the town’s goals.”

The selectmen in December referred South Park to the Planning and Zoning Commission to assess whether the site might be appropriate for senior housing. They also cited protection of the Mill River and preservation of open space surrounding the river as a high priority.

CFE is among 16 entities vying for the state program. Gay presumes that all of the applications contain compelling reasons why they should be selected, as CFE’s does.

“One of our board members said, Why don’t we file an application and see what comes of it?” he said. “There is no guarantee it will come through. It’s one of a number of ideas CFE has had to preserve South Park that may or may not turn out into something. We hope it does.”

The Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust program was created by the legislature in 1986 to help preserve Connecticut’s natural heritage and is the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s primary program for acquiring land to expand the state’s system of parks, forests, wildlife, and open spaces.

Through the program, the DEEP manages the acquisition of land that represents the ecological and cultural diversity of Connecticut, with a focus on unique features such as rivers, mountains, rare natural communities, scenic qualities, historic significance, connections to other protected land, and access to water.

To qualify, each potential acquisition should possess one or more of the following attributes:

• Provide high-quality recreation opportunities, either active or passive.

• Conserve a unique, natural area or protect a species considered threatened, endangered or of special concern.

• Represent a prime, natural feature of the Connecticut landscape.

The CFE application satisfies all of the attributes, Gay said.

High-quality recreation

CFE’s application cites the property as the beginning point for a potential green belt in this part of the state for trails that would run north through the Easton Reservoir into the Easton or Trumbull side.

Or it could go out through the Hattertown area as a contiguous trail north to Danbury, extending for as much as 20 or 25 miles. Bikers, hikers and runners could use it as a recreational resource, Gay said.

Preservation of rare wild trout and brown trout would be a boon to fishermen as well as protecting threatened species.

Protection of threatened species

Preserving the site as open space would protect the wild trout and brown trout that live in the Mill River.

“Here’s one thing we included from Trout Unlimited,” Gay said.

The Nutmeg Chapter of Trout Unlimited’s Mill River Improvement Project stated on its website: “Our most important current stream restoration work is the Mill River Improvement Project which consists of restoring and protecting the Mill River, one of only nine Class A Wild Trout Streams left in our state out of over 300 streams. The Mill is unique in that it is pure enough and cold enough to sustain wild trout despite being on the edge of an extremely suburban area.”

Prime landscape feature

The scenic river views from the South Park property lend themselves to environmental field study by school groups, day trippers and hikers, Gay said.

The CFE application included a statement from Catherine Labadia, deputy state historic preservation officer and staff archaeologist in the State Historic Preservation Office, Department of Economic and Community Development.

Labadia described some prime natural landscape features that further quality for the site for the state preservation program.

“This type of environment setting is frequently associated with Native American settlement,” Labadia wrote. “Based on the known archeological resources in the vicinity, it is the opinion of this office that the property has the potential to contain significant archeological resources.”

Site history

The town purchased the South Park property in 2008 from Running Brook Farm to protect the land that borders the Mill River from high-density housing.

Easton paid $6,150,000 for 29 acres and entered into a lease/option agreement with the New England Prayer Center. The prayer center paid $300,000 up front and $75,000 each year in lease and option payments.

Plan B was to rezone the property into 14 one-acre building lots. Many residents favored this option, but no developer has shown an interest to date.

The agreement with the Prayer Center was supposed to end in 2010, but clauses in the contract permitted six-month extensions for $37,500 each if a third party were to appeal the town’s approval of the prayer center’s building plan, as was the case.

Gina and Dan Blaze, prayer center founders, lost the option to purchase the property when their final lease renewal extension expired. They continue to pay rent to occupy the house on the site.

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